In addition to its more positive attractions — like the beautiful Great Lakes and delicious Mackinac Island fudge — Michigan is now one of only four states that spend more money on prisons than higher education. More than 20 percent of the state’s general fund goes to the corrections system each year. The high number of prisoners in the systems is partly due to Michigan’s release policies, which are much stricter than much of the country. But with the state government needing to do all it can to save money, the legislature is considering a new policy that could save millions in its corrections budget by lessening the maximum sentencing for prisoners. Such a change is long overdue, and the legislature should implement this policy to free up state funding and bring Michigan’s treatment of prisoners more in line with the rest of the country.

Michigan spends $32,000 per year on each prisoner. That’s well above the national average of $23,876. And Michigan’s more than 40 prisons are home to about 50,000 prisoners. But not only does Michigan house an excessive amount of inmates, it holds them for longer periods than most other states. A study published by the Council of State Government showed that the average maximum sentence in this state is three times longer than the minimum — another large difference from other state’s prison policies. These lengthy sentences mean that Michigan sinks about $2.2 billion into the corrections system each year.

But a new policy, suggested in late January, could save the state $262 million by 2015. Prisoners will be reviewed by a parole board that won’t subject them to incarceration for more than 120 percent of their minimum sentence. This change attempts to match sentences to the committed crimes more reasonably. The policy would still allow prisoners who are deemed “high-risk” because of repeat or violent offenses to remain in prison even after served more than 120 percent of the minimum sentence. Nonetheless, about 4,300 prisoners could be eligible for release.

Releasing these prisoners to save the state money is more than just necessary — it’s desired. Michigan’s corrections department has been long-overdue for a downsizing. And it’s good that the state is making cuts in places that should be cut rather than from institutions like higher education — upon which the state is depending to diversify its manufacturing-based economy. Long-term incarceration does nothing to rehabilitate criminals back into society, and Michigan’s lengthy sentences constitute a cruel and unfortunate record.

In the long run, carefully returning prisoners who don’t need to be incarcerated into society is better for them and the state’s budget. And Michigan needs to allocate its funding in places that will use the money to help boost the suffering economy. Passing this policy is a necessary way to cut back on spending while at the same time softening Michigan’s prison standards to deal with prisoners more humanely and responsibly.

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